23 MAR 2001 General News

Defending Champion Mourhit faces head-to-head with Team Kenya


Sean WallaceJones for IAAF

23 March 2000 – Ostend - Relaxed and smiling after a day that started in Ifrane, in Morocco’s Atlas mountains at 4.30am, the defending world champion, Mohammed Mourhit flew into Ostend by helicopter this afternoon in time for his 3.00 pm rendezvous with the press.

"I got up at 4.30, then drove 65 kilometres to Fez, took the plane to Casablanca and then another flight to Brussels. I was a little apprehensive about the helicopter flight from Brussels to Ostend, "he smiled, "but it went well and was not as bumpy as I thought it would be."

Mourhit wanted all the chances on his side and that meant delaying his departure from altitude training in Ifrane, where the Moroccan Federation has its high level performance centre and Mourhit trains with his brother Hassan and a couple of friends, until the last possible moment.

"Later this afternoon I am going to take a look at the course and then I will take an easy run for 35-40 minutes."

Mourhit believes that he will have his work cut out on Sunday, when he lines up to defend the title that he won from Paul Tergat in Vilamoura last year.

"The course is going to be very heavy, very different from what I have been used to during my training and very different from Vilamoura.

"This means that the race will be a lot more tactical and a lot less speed-dependent. The mud coupled with the cold and the wind is going to take its toll on everyone and I am going to be racing against the whole Kenyan team.

"The way that they run their races means that they will more or less designate a winner among themselves and they are happy to sacrifice someone on the team by sending them ahead to make the pace for the others."

A statement supported by the youngster the pundits are backing as favourite to contest Mourhit’s title defence: 20-year-old John Korir from Kenya.

"I am the team captain," said Korir, who won the Junior bronze medal at last year’s World Championships and was the surprise winner in the Kenyan National Championships.

"It is up to me to really decide what happens during the race," he continues. "But whatever happens, we are a strong team, a tough team and we can handle the conditions."

Korir grew up in the Rift Valley, in a little town called Bemot, whose most famous son is a past World Cross Country Champion and world record holder in the 10,000 metres, William Sigei.

"I know Sigei very well," recounts Korir, "he has given me a lot of advice, especially about the mistakes I made when I competed in the Olympics.

"He is very well known in Bemot and when we were youngsters and he would pass us in his truck when we were running to school, he used to shout out to us to follow him and try to catch him up.

"I have always loved to run. I used to run to school, but I used to try to find a longer way to get there so that I could run more. I had to get up at six to be at school at seven in the morning, but sometimes I would get up at 4 a.m. and go for a run before going back home to have some breakfast and then leaving to run to school as usual!"

Korir has no doubts about the speed and ability of Mourhit, either.

"Mourhit will really be the driver in this race. He is also on his home ground so that will help him too.

"It is going to be a hard course," continues Korir who is from the Kipsigis tribe, part of the Kalenjin, "but the course will be the same for everyone and we have run on mud before."

Perhaps the greatest strength of the Kenyans, though, will be in their renowned teamwork, a force to be reckoned with at all times but most especially when the conditions are as hard as they are shaping up to be over the weekend.

Meantime, Mohammed Mourhit will be looking to renew the glory that he experienced in Vilamoura: "It has changed a lot for me, both the way I feel about myself as an athlete, but also the way that other people – especially the meet managers –treat me. It is a great feeling." And John Korir will be aiming to win a prize somewhat more substantial than the first prize he ever won back in 1998: "It was a cow," he recalls with a smile. "My very first cow."

A gold medal on Sunday will bring him the chance to add a few more cattle to his nascent herd.